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Archive for the ‘Four Stars’ Category

 

Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the movie The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American who lives in Philadelphia, tell his life story. The Martin Scorsese movie is three and a half hours long. So make sure you have ample time before sitting down for this one, or split it into two nights.

The story starts when Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, is in a wheelchair in a nursing home, telling the story of how he started out as a truckdriver delivering meat, to becoming a hit man for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a friend and confidante of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman leads us through a few turbulent decades of American history and the mob’s involvement. Particularly the Kennedy Administration, how Kennedy got elected, Bobby Kennedy’s role, and eventually even Nixon are involved in the plot. Most of all, it gives deep insight into the thinking of the mob and the unions, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The acting is superb. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano are at their very best. We have not one superstar actor in this film, but half a dozen of them, all doing an exemplary job.

The Irishman is shocking, exhausting to watch, long and drawn out, but hugely educational, and a history lesson.

I never knew much about Jimmy Hoffa, other than I knew that he was a union figure, and there was a movie about him (Hoffa, 1992, with Jack Nicholson). Now I know a lot more about Hoffa, and I’ll have to watch that movie too.

The Irishman is 209 minutes long, and 209 minutes worth watching.

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The Two Popes is a dramatization of what happened in 2013, when Pope Benedict VI (Anthony Hopkins) was the first pope to resign in over 700 years. Benedict was a conservative and, in religious aspects, a hardliner. He was elected during a time when Catholicism was under immense internal pressure and change.

Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) would eventually become Pope Francis, Pope Benedict’s successor. But he didn’t know that in 2012, when he traveled to Rome to submit his request to retire. He was one of Pope Benedict’s harshest critics and an activist in the church.

The Two Popes tells the life story of Jorge Bergoglio through the framework of the conversations between the two men over two days in Rome. The unlikely pair of adversaries became friends, and the rest is history.

Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict, taught at the University of Regensburg in Germany in 1969, about the same time I was a school boy learning Latin in Regensburg. During one of my visits there a decade ago, when he was pope, I went to find his house in Pentling, right outside of Regensburg and just a few kilometers from the university. It’s an unassuming place, mostly behind a tall and grown-over wall of ivy and green. I never knew about him when he was active in Regensburg and later Munich as bishop, of course, and only studied up on him when he became der Bayerische Papst (the Bavarian Pope).

I am not a Catholic, and I am not a Christian, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Two Popes. Other than the doctrine and the thinking of Pope Benedict, I didn’t learn much about him. But I learned the entire history of Pope Francis, and while I have criticized him for many of the decisions he has made and the atrocities of the church that he has allowed to continue, I have gathered renewed respect for him through this movie.

And I feel solidarity: If I were pope, I would shun the red shoes too.

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The Stand is about a pandemic that kills almost everyone in the world.

I read this book shortly after it first came out in 1978. Then, in 1990, King reissued the “Complete and Uncut Edition” with extra chapters and some changes. I read it again the early 1990s.

I never did a review of the book. Now might be a great time to do so.

If you’d like to read up on details, check the Wikipedia page for the book here.

A modified strain of the flu (sounds familiar?) accidentally escapes a government lab in Texas. It kills almost everyone it infects. Far less than 1% of the population, for some unfound reason, are immune. This means that in any given city or community, there might be nobody or just one person left. Within just a few weeks, the entire country is a grave yard. Rotting corpses are everywhere, in every house and building. Cars run off the roads litter the highways, usually corpses inside. A few survivors eventually run into each other and small groups band together to eek out a life after “the flu.”

The story follows a group of people who start out in New England and make their way west, collecting straggling survivors as they go. They end up settling in Boulder, Colorado. However, as one might expect, there is also an “evil” group, with its own leader, and they congregate in Las Vegas. The epic struggle between good and evil is carried out by the fragments of humanity.

The Stand is King’s largest book. This is a monster, a work the size of War and Peace. However, it’s also, in my opinion, King’s best work ever, and one of my favorite novels of all time. There are some (very) long stretches of less than exciting mystical sections getting into the supernatural of the bad guys in the second half of the book, which I found tedious. But other than that, it’s riveting reading. King portrays a lot of unique and utterly memorable characters that have stayed with me for a lifetime, including the main characters of Stuart Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Nick Andros and the ever likeable feeble-minded Tom Cullen, “Laws, Yes!” As usual, King’s characters are deeply developed, very real and convincing. The Stand also introduced me to “Payday” candy bars, which I hadn’t known before. After reading The Stand, discarded Payday candy wrappers always bring back post-apocalyptic visions for me when I randomly encounter them.

I am writing this review as we just received the order by the governor of California to stay at home for the next month to fight the coronavirus pandemic. None of us have ever experienced anything like this before, yet here we are, and the unthinkable has happened.

Well, I have read The Stand before, and I saw how it can end. It’s not pretty.

If you find yourself with some extra time and nothing to read, I highly recommend The Stand.

 

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Movie Review: Parasite

Parasite made Oscar history:

Parasite is the film that took home the most awards at the Oscars 2020, winning four Academy Awards at tonight’s Oscars including Best Picture, Directing, International Feature Film and Writing (Original Screenplay). Not only that, but it also became the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win the award for Best Picture.

Oscar.go.com

Of course, with this much attention on a film, we had to go back and see it. I had never seen a Korean film and while I  was afraid that the subtitles would get in the way, I was immersed within minutes and forgot about the whole foreign language thing altogether. I was in the movie all the way through.

The story is about two families:

The Park family is in Korean’s upper class. The father is an young entrepreneur and the head of his company. He gets driven to work by a chauffeur in his Benz. They live in an upscale neighborhood in an opulent, modern house that has won awards for its architecture. His wife is beautiful, pampered, overprotective of her children, and has obviously never had to worry about anything serious in her life, other than being a socialite, planning elaborate parties, and worrying about what her friends would think about her and her family. The teenage daughter is smart, worldly, and is getting tutoring in English. The little boy is a spoiled terror and the entire family is under his playful thumb.

The Kim family is on the other side of the spectrum of society. They live in a basement apartment in the seedy part of town. Their main living room window faces out into the alley at eye level, where drunks regularly urinate right in front of them. The father (Song Kang Ho, who is generally understood to be the top Korean actor of his generation) is a loser. He has no job, no prospects of work and seemingly no ambition beyond somehow cheating the system wherever he can, including mooching off the WiFi of the neighbors in the building. His obedient wife does what she can to support the family. The two of them have taught their kids well in the way of gaming the system. The son and daughter are early college-age but neither are enrolled, even though both are resourceful, smart, energetic and ambitious. They have learned their father’s way well. The family ekes out a living by folding cardboard pizza boxes from the flat delivered shape to a usable form by the cooks. And they can’t even get a simple task like that right, and end up with 25% rejection rate.

Through a fortuitous connection, and by his sister helping him forge a diploma, with their father’s admiration and blessing, the Kim son gets a job tutoring the Park daughter in English. While on the job, he learns that the family is looking for a new art tutor for the little boy.  He manages to install an acquaintance, who is, unbeknownst to the Park family, his sister. Within a short time, the entire Kim family is employed by the Park household as tutors, driver and housekeeper. The Parks have no idea that all their employees are one family. Except the little boy, when he notices that the driver and the housekeeper smell the same.

Under wealthy Korean homes there are often bunkers for protection from war and disaster induced by the North Koreans. The Parks apparently don’t know they have such a bunker below their basement. However, in that bunker lives a man who has been there for years. A parasite. And here is where it starts getting complicated.

Parasite portrays the income diversity of society and how the rich can afford to be oblivious to the real problems and needs of the people. The poor are forced to fight for every scrap, and they end up being hardworking, resourceful and creative in making a living. We feel the constant humiliation of the poor and unfortunate, and how they deal with this continuous pressure and struggle to overcome it.

The movie is 132 minutes long. At every turn there is a surprise. I never knew what would happen next. This is DEFINITELY NOT HOLLYWOOD.  The storytelling is superb, and the twists seem to never end. Even the last 30 seconds left me wondering what might happen next. When the credits finally rolled I wondered what had just happened. This was different than any movie I had ever seen. This was a glimpse of a culture I knew little about. I had just heard more spoken Korean in the last two hours than in my entire life before combined. And I felt I had just watched a great movie. The Oscars were deserved.

You should go and see it.

 

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Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws. 
—John Quincy Adams
This book was presumably written by a senior Trump administration official, like a cabinet-level appointee, or somebody in a similar situation. The account is not favorable to Trump.

The book tells what it’s like to work inside the White House under Trump as a senior advisor or executive. Trump is shown as a completely unfit person for the presidency. He does not read, he has no interest in opinions other than those of himself, he seeks power and status for himself without regard to what is right for the country or its people. He uses his assistants until they somehow disagree with him, and then they become enemies. All his assistants start disagreeing with him within minutes of any direct interaction. It does not paint a good picture.

It is A Warning – and I mean it.

Trump promised during the campaign that he would eliminate the national debt within 8 years in office. He has done the opposite. The deficit is higher than ever in history, spending is out of control, higher than Obama’s and that  was one of the main points the conservatives had against Obama. Here is an excerpt that discusses spending:

Donald Trump was not interested in penny-pinching. He may try to project the image of a man working to save taxpayer dollars, and it’s true that he can be talked out of stupid ideas if they cost too much. But that’s not because he’s trying to save money so it can go back to the American people. He still wants to spend the money, just on things in which he’s personally interested, such as bombs or border security. Trump recoils at people who are “cheap.” Today he is sparing no expense on the management of the executive branch, spending so freely it makes the money-burning days of the Trump Organization look like the five-dollar tables at a Vegas casino. As a result, the budget deficit has increased every single year since Donald Trump took office, returning to dangerous levels. The president is on track to spend a trillion dollars above what the government takes in annually.

— Anonymous. A Warning (p. 100). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Here is another excerpt talking about spending and the budget.

Donald Trump has America back on the road to bankruptcy, an area where he has unparalleled expertise for a president of the United States. The small band of fiscal conservatives who remain in the Trump administration warned the president about the eventual dangers of his out-of-control spending addiction. In one such meeting, Trump reportedly said, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” I never heard him say those words, but it doesn’t come as a surprise. That’s how he thinks. What does he care if the federal government goes belly-up? By then it won’t be his problem.
–Anonymous. A Warning (p. 101). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Trump called the writer a traitor. Trump defenders called him a coward.

Both labels are not fair. Let’s just say the facts stated are true. Clearly, the two excerpts above do not tell us anything we don’t already know. The numbers don’t lie. Trump may not like the fact that someone inside his administration states these facts to the public, but treasonous it is not.

It’s simply the truth, simply facts.

There is obviously no way for a cabinet secretary to write such a book under his or her name and live another hour in the administration, and then not be crucified and smeared for life by Trump supporters in the public and the media. So in order to get this book out, it needed to be written anonymously. Usually I do not like it when writers post anonymous comments in my blog, or anywhere online, but I am making an exception in this case. This book contains valuable information that will help me make my decision when it comes time to vote.

And just because of this, I am going to quote a section at the end of the book that is the most important of the entire message, the Warning. Please read this carefully. If you do not end up  reading the book after this review, at least read this excerpt:

Nevertheless, the counterargument to my point will be strong if the Democratic Party nominates someone deeply out of touch with mainstream America. Then everything changes. If it’s one of the Democratic candidates preaching “socialism,” Trump’s fearmongering will still be persuasive. Republicans will argue that the other candidate, as president, would attack our free-market principles, tax us into economic recession, promote a thought-police culture of political correctness, fan the flames of identity politics, and bring government into our lives like never before. It will be a repeat of 2016. Compared to the leftward-lurching Democratic Party, Trump will seem friendlier to conservative ideals. Discussions about qualifications will give way to emotion and fear, and Trump’s reelection chances will rise.
Democrats reading this book know how high the stakes are. I implore you, if you want a majority of our nation to reject Donald Trump, you must show wisdom and restraint in selecting your party’s nominee. Resist the temptation to swerve away from the mainstream. Trust me. We flirted with extremes in the GOP during the last cycle, and look where it got us. If Democrats do the same, Trump will be that much closer to a second term and better equipped to convince Americans to stick with him. If, however, you nominate someone who campaigns on unity instead of ideological purity, you will have a sizable number of Republicans and independents ready to make common cause.
— Anonymous. A Warning (p. 246). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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A Brief History of Humankind

As the subtitle states, the book is a brief history of the human race. The Israeli author has a Ph.D. in history and lectures at the Hewbrew University in Jerusalem. He tells the story of humanity from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. The material was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2014. Some of the references to current events, like global warming for instance, are therefore already quite outdated, but the impact of that is very minor.

Unlike what we think of history books, Sapiens is a page-turner. The author’s viewpoint sometimes shocks and surprises us. Humans are apes that managed to become the apex predator of the planet.

Being scientifically oriented myself, and keenly interested in history to boot, there was not much material in Sapiens that I didn’t already know in a broad sense, but the level of detail and the sharp, keen observations that the author supplies made it very valuable.

I learned a lot about our history, and there are many subjects the author addressed that resulted in my taking notes for further study and reading. For me, it all makes sense, but I can see that for a Christian or a Muslim, or a technologist, some of the conclusions of the author may be surprising or even disturbing and shocking.

Many sapiens eat pork:

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 342). Harper. Kindle Edition.

I read the book cover to cover, and I learned – mostly that I know very little. My rating key for books states: “Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.” Obviously, I rate a book with four stars when it changes me in some way.

After reading Sapiens, I will never think about many topics quite the same again. I can’t “unread” this book. I read it, and now:

  • Christianity, Islam and all the other religions will never quite look the same to me.
  • I always believed animals are not different in kind from humans in any way. Animals feel, hope, love, lust, fear and mourn, just like we do.
  • We are destroying ourselves and our planet, and all the creatures on it (or most of them).
  • Our current Republican government is corrupt, criminal and repugnant.
  • Our species does not appear fit to survive.
  • We are at the cusp of turning into something quite different entirely. I call it the ultra-sapiens, in great contrast to divine. The ultra-sapiens will look at us sapiens like we sapiens look at ants. Get out the Raid and wipe them off the countertop.
  • We could do so much good, be so much better, but we don’t have the maturity to pull it off.

Sapiens changed the way I think, and I suspect it would change your way of thinking, too.

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This is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It shows Buzz Aldrin on the moon with the American flag on July 20, 1969.

I was 12 years old then, old enough to think on my own and science-minded enough to sit up in the middle of the night (in Germany) in front of our TV at 3:56am local time when Armstrong made that famous first step onto the moon.

The movie Apollo 11 is a documentary of the moon landing, and as we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of this event, it is ever more significant. The entire movie is not narrated or filmed. It is entirely constructed of actual clippings, both video and audio, taken at the time, and put together in a coherent sequence that tells the awesome story in all its glory. There is a minimum of screen prompts, like “Day 3,” that keep the viewer oriented. Other than that, it’s all original material, and that makes the impact all the more powerful.

This is not a movie, but rather a documentary of humanity’s peaceful conquests, and it is told masterfully.

 

 

Now that I rated the movie, I have to add my own ruminations about the moon landings.

I am not sure exactly how all those people who were born after this, which is the majority of humanity, think about the moon landings. But I remember clearly reading science fiction in the 1960s when I was in awe of the immensity of the undertaking. I remember a world before humans reached another body.

50 years have now gone by. 77 percent of all people alive today were not alive when the first moon landing occurred. Another 12 percent of all people alive today were younger than age 12 at the time of the moon landing, and therefore probably do not have first-hand memories of the events themselves.

So a full 89 percent of the world’s population did not have the experience of sitting in front of the television that day, watching those grainy pictures from very far away.

I remember what I thought that day. I remember thinking that by the time I was “old” I’d be able to buy a ticket to take a vacation on the moon. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that by 1972, we’d stop going there, and by 2019, the United States is actually in a position where it does not have the technology to put a man into space, let alone onto the moon. I recognize that we’re on track to change that soon, with initiatives by SpaceX and Boeing for human-rated rockets underway and both within 12 months of realizing that goal.

Of the 12 men who ever walked on the moon, eight are now deceased. Only Buzz  Aldrin (age 88), David Scott (85), Charlie Duke (82) and Harrison Schmitt (82) are still alive as of today.

I would never have thought that a boy in South Africa (Elon Musk) who would not even be born for another two years after the summer of 1969 would be the one that would make it possible for the United States to launch humans into space in 2019, and who would have the vision to take them to the moon and Mars.

The collective will of our nation, and our species, to set goals beyond the next election cycle, has diminished and we are left at the whims of individual politicians with an outlook of a few years at a time. Real goals, like a space program that allows us to leave the planet, are achieved in decades of dedication and lifetimes of focus. Unless we figure that out soon, we might as well continue to ruin our planet and render it unlivable, with no way out.

Perhaps movies like Apollo 11 will inspire us to do more with our time than line our pockets and gratify our immediate urges and needs.

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It’s 1952 in the marshland in coastal North Carolina. Kya is six years old and the youngest of five siblings. They live in a shack in the swamp. Pa is a loser and a drunk, and he abuses and beats Ma and the kids. One day Ma just walks away and never comes back. One by one the older siblings also drift away. Pa sticks around for another four years, but is gone sometimes four or more days in a row, who knows where. Then one day, when Kya is about ten, Pa does not come back. She is completely abandoned and forced to raise herself and survive. Kya grows up as a feral child, known as the Marsh Girl, a mystery to the towns people.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the debut novel of Delia Owens, a zoologist and non-fiction writer. She is now 70 years old and this is her first novel. I found the work truly amazing for a first novel. I just finished reading a truly bad novel, which I rated as zero stars. From the first page of reading Crawdads I was drawn in and captivated by the excellent descriptions, the suspense, the story, and the characters. Where the Crawdads Sing is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. It is a unique story about a set of characters we would not come across in our normal daily lives. It draws us into that life and environment until we become part of it. We feel the pain, the abandonment, the loneliness, and the longing of Kya as she grows up into a remarkable woman.

The book has all the elements needed: a strong story, unique characters, good and evil, suspense, challenge, pain, and an abundance of natural beauty all around with excellent descriptions.

When I was done with the book I went to the Amazon reviews and checked out out some of the 1-star ones, the people who didn’t like the book. Many thought it was unrealistic or unbelievable. Some, who were familiar with the North Carolina coast land said that the descriptions of the geography were not accurate. Some said that there are no crawdads in salt water marshes. Some said that the dialect used by the locals seemed somehow “wrong” or stilted or inconsistent. All those flaws may be real and factual, but none of them bothered me as I read the book.

I remember reading and feeling deep emotions all throughout, I shed quite a few quiet tears behind my glasses from time to time, and I truly enjoyed every minute of it. At the end, I didn’t want the story to be over.

It may have its flaws, it may be unrealistic, it may not be true to the local details, but it was a powerful book that left a strong imprint on me, one I will remember for a long time.

This is a book that deserves four stars from me.

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I always enjoy when I can relate to the location where a novel takes place, or when I can visit such a location. I have experienced this several times in recent years.

One was when I read the novel Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker. The story plays in Fallbrook, California, a town where I lived for almost 20 years of my life and raised my children. I knew many of the locations in the novel, including the streets, parks and some of the stores and businesses referenced.

The other was the book The Crazyladies of Pearl Street by Trevanian. This played in Albany, New York early in the last century. In 2013, when I read that book, I made regular trips to Albany on business and I actually went to see the locations and the actual address on Pearl Street where the protagonist lived. I took pictures of the empty lot that is there now.

Reading a novel and retracing the locations of the protagonists gives the story a special meaning and the feeling of the story sinks in much deeper than it would by just reading the book.

And so it happened with Stoner. I had never heard of the book, or the author for that matter. Then, last Sunday morning while waiting for a flight at the Admirals Club at the Dallas / Ft. Worth airport I received a text from a friend, a member of an informal “book club” is was “accidentally” pulled into, that the next book we were going to read was Stoner. Stoner – what – I texted back. What author? John Williams was the response, and two minutes later I had the book downloaded on my phone ready to read when I got on my flight. I stopped reading The Greatest Story Ever Told to squeeze in Stoner first.

In the next few hours reading into the book I found out that the entire story plays in Columbia, Missouri, most at or around the University of Missouri. William Stoner was born in 1891 on a Missouri farm. He grew up working with his father on their land. His parents had done nothing in all their lives but work the farm. They wanted a better life for their son, so they sent him off to college to study agriculture. The father’s hope was that after four years, the son would come back with a better bag of tricks and make the farming more profitable and rewarding. However, Stoner fell in love with English and literature, and unbeknownst to his parents, switched his major and eventually went through graduate school, got his doctorate and started teaching literature at the university. And that was Stoner’s life – except – things didn’t go so well for him.

His worst mistake and the one causing many other misfortunes that befell him later was that he married a truly awful woman. Edith caught the eye of the young instructor at a party and he was smitten by her beauty. Even though she showed no interest in him, he courted her and eventually proposed marriage. She accepted. And within a month of being married Stoner knew his marriage was a failure. Edith was the epitome of the worst possible woman ever to be married to. She was a loveless, self-absorbed, vindictive, morose and frigid person who obviously loathed Stoner. Why she married him we never figured out. But Stoner was a good man, with character, conviction, honor and a tendency for brutally hard work and commitment. So he dealt with his marriage. He spent pretty much his entire life sleeping on the couch in his living room. It was truly painful to witness.

Stoner lived to support his wife and their only daughter, Grace, who also grew up screwed up due to the terrible situation of her parents. He only found real love once in an affair with a young instructor at the university. Besides stolen hours in her apartment when they could manage it, they only got to spend 10 days together on a vacation, which was the single true happy time in both their lives.

Stoner is a remarkable book. It’s a story about nothing, and it’s a story about everything, about life, hard work, and academic life in an American university in the first half of the 20th century. It’s depressing to read and it made me think about my own life and my own decisions.

And here is the funny part: Remember I was at the airport when I bought the book. Guess where I was flying later that week?

Columbia, Missouri.

When I landed I was 86% through the book. So rather than going to the hotel from the airport, I got into my rental car and drove into town and spent a bit of time around the University of Missouri, just checking out where Old Stoner was supposedly teaching his courses all those years ago, and getting a sense of the locations. Of course, the college described in the book in 1910 is no longer. Now it’s a sprawling campus with many modern buildings from the 1970s vintage and thousands of students milling about. I did see some old buildings like those described in the novel, and most of those are now fraternity houses. like this one:

It was truly thrilling. I was on my way to Columbia, Missouri when I received the message to read a novel that plays entirely in Columbia, Missouri. I just finished it now, writing this review while I am still here, ready to leave in the morning.

I recommend you read Stoner by John Williams. I for one am richer having done so.

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[click to enlarge – you must]

The picture above shows Alex Honnold, the world’s most awesome rock climber, with El Capitan in the background, the world’s most awesome big wall.

All my life I was an avid hiker and mountaineer, but rock climbing has always scared me. I could never understand what possessed people to climb vertical walls. I was paralyzed by fear just thinking about it.

Then, at the age of 36, I bought shoes, a harness, a few carabiners, a chalk bag, and signed up for a class in technical rock climbing. I learned how to build anchors, to rappel, to belay and to climb.

Once you get off the ground just six feet on a vertical wall, and you look down, it looks far, and it is potentially deadly. You don’t need to go very high to forget all petty thoughts, all worldly problems or issues. You leave the entire “gross national product world” behind, and you focus on what really matters – the next foot or handhold.

Before making that reach, letting go with one hand to reach up to the next handhold, switching from four-point contact with the wall to a temporary three-point contact, you think about your harness and whether you remembered to double-back the buckle properly, you can’t remember if you locked the carabiner that ties into the rope. Could it have a hairline crack? You look down and check your figure-eight knot and make sure it’s done right. How old is that rope anyway? How about the anchor? Is it really going to hold if I fall?

Panic sets in. Hands start slipping. Time to make the reach. Go! Reach!

Whew. It worked. Next step.

Your mind is singly focused on nothing but you, your equipment and the wall.

I probably haven’t been on a rock wall 20 years now, but I still have a passion for the sport, and I have followed the career of Alex Honnold over the years. I have written about him a few times. Here is an example: Look, Ma, no Rope!

In June of 2017, Honnold finally completed his lifelong dream of doing something nobody has ever done before in the history of climbing: free soloing El Capitan, the hardest, most bad-ass big wall in the world. This put Alex on the pinnacle of the climbing world. This feat is celebrated as one of the greatest athletic achievements of any kind, and it sets an impossible standard: Perform perfectly, without a single mistake, for a 3,000 foot climb, or die. It stretches our understanding and appreciation of the human spirit and the power of mental concentration.

The movie is masterfully done. It chronicles Honnold’s life, and it builds the tension, so when we finally watch the climb itself, we are prepared for the various tight spots and challenges, and we sit at the edge of our seat. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a cliffhanger.

My palms started to sweat at the beginning of the movie, and my hands did not dry up until the closing credits played.

Free solo is a documentary you really, really should watch!

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Will (Ben Foster) is a young homeless veteran haunted by demons most of us can’t even imagine. He lives completely off the grid in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). By off the grid I mean under a tarp deep in the forest, hiding their footprints on the way in so nobody knows they are there. Tom’s mother died, we don’t know how, before she can remember. Will teaches his daughter survival skills as well as the laws of homelessness. She is surprisingly educated and well-adjusted.

But then they get caught, and social services closes in on them, trying to integrate them into society one step at a time. Tom takes well to her new environment, but Will cannot function in the normal world. Again and again he walks away with nothing but a set of boots, a backpack and his teenage daughter in tow.

Leave No Trace is an intense drama accentuated by brilliant cinematography and a poignant musical score. It gives us a view into the desperate world of homelessness and has us guessing about the horrible trauma a man must have gone through to end up like Will in the wilderness. And yet, the support system is not demonized in this story, the social workers are caring and giving and really trying to help. The friends they meet along their journey are a motley group of aged hippies, beaten veterans and country folks trying to find their way. We see a corner of Americana that is as real as Starbucks and freeways and iPhones, but just a few miles off into the hinterland, past a few stop lights at the edge of town. That is where life happens, accompanied by a guitar in calloused hands, stringy long hair tied in a ponytail by a scrunchy, in the shelters of beat-up trailers under giant trees.

Leave No Trace received a perfect 100% by Rotten Tomatoes and it deserves every bit of it.

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“There’s no time to lose”, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind
Ain’t life unkind?

— The Rolling Stones, from Ruby Tuesday

When I was a youth in the little land-locked German state of Bavaria I never left a radius of about 150 miles around my home town. I dreamed of getting a sailboat and living on my boat crisscrossing the Mediterranean, visiting all the Greek islands I read so much about in my Latin classes. I bought books about sailing. It was a life-long dream.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40ies, living in San Diego, that I started taking sailing lessons. But I really never ventured out much further than the San Diego Bay, sailing out to the “point” at Point Loma, where the bay opens into the Pacific. My dream of sailing the open ocean has faded over the years. I lost my dream, but I didn’t lose my mind…

The day after our wedding was Trisha’s 60th birthday. She hired the Aolani, a great catamaran, to take out all the out-of-town guests for a cruise on San Diego Bay. Here we are boarding:

Aolani

Picture Credit: Lothar Frosch

While on the cruise, our captain was “Captain Steve” and he told us many a sailing yarn and gave us a lot of history of the San Diego Bay, much of which I had never heard before. Here is Captain Steve. I am sitting on the right side in the middle.

 

Capt Steve

Picture Credit: Lothar Frosch

It turns out, Steve fulfilled the dream I had but never chased after. He has sailed alone around the world several times, once even achieving a speed record. I was in awe.

Then he recommended a book about sailing: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. A few days later I picked up the book on my Kindle, and I had no idea what I was in for.

Melville’s Moby Dick was published in 1851. Two Years Before the Mast was first published in 1840, more than ten years earlier. Melville actually had made some jokes about Two Years Before the Mast, about the section of rounding Cape Horn having been written with an icicle. Two Years Before the Mast is known to be one of the first classics of American literature.

Richard Henry Dana was from the upper class of Boston society and an undergraduate at Harvard College. His father was a poet, his grandfather had been chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and his great-grandfather was one of the original Sons of Liberty in Boston. While at Harvard, Dana became ill with the measles which affected his vision. He could not read without great pain. He felt he needed a change, took a leave from college and hired on as a common sailor on the brig Pilgrim, a merchant ship which was ready to go on a journey to California. In those days, that meant the trip had to go around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. It took many months at sea and was fraught with danger. He eventually returned to Boston two years later on a different ship, the Alert, owned by the same company.

In the book, Dana tells the story of the two-year journey from the point of view of a sailor. Being a sailor on a ship was as close to slavery as one can get without actually being a slave. Sailors got paid $12 a month. While on ship, the captain was the ultimate authority. There was no law, no protection, no leisure, unless authorized by the captain. The sailors performed backbreaking labor, day and night, holiday and weekend. There was no healthcare, extremely poor nutrition, much brutalization of the men, no justice and no way out. Once you signed up for a journey, you were indentured for the duration of that journey. You didn’t know when you would come back, or, for that matter, if you would come back at all. Many sailors died, from falling overboard, being overworked, getting ill, or from malnutrition.

Dana tells the story of the common sailor, interwoven with elaborate sailing jargon I usually did not understand. Here is a sample:

By and by — bang, bang, bang, on the scuttle — “All ha-a-ands, aho-o-y!” We spring out of our berths, clap on a monkey-jacket and southwester, and tumble up the ladder. Mate up before us, and on the forecastle, singing out like a roaring bull; the captain singing out on the quarter-deck, and the second mate yelling, like a hyena, in the waist. The ship is lying over half upon her beam-ends; lee scuppers under water, and forecastle all in a smother of foam. Rigging all let go, and washing about decks; topsail yards down upon the caps, and sails flapping and beating against the masts; and starboard watch hauling out the reef-tackles of the main topsail. Our watch haul out the fore, and lay aloft and put two reefs into it, and reef the foresail, and race with the starboard watch to see which will mast-head its topsail first. All hands tally-on to the main tack, and while some are furling the jib and hoisting the staysail, we mizzen-top-men double-reef the mizzen topsail and hoist it up. All being made fast — “Go below, the watch!” and we turn-in to sleep out the rest of the time, which is perhaps an hour and a half. During all the middle, and for the first part of the morning watch, it blows as hard as ever, but toward daybreak it moderates considerably, and we shake a reef out of each topsail, and set the top-gallant-sails over them; and when the watch come up, at seven bells, for breakfast, shake the other reefs out, turn all hands to upon the halyards, get the watch-tackle upon the top-gallant sheets and halyards, set the flying-jib, and crack on to her again.

— Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast (Kindle Locations 5843-5855). Houghton Mifflin. Kindle Edition.

However, I must admit that now I am looking for a book on sailing ship diagrams and descriptions of the rigging, so I understand what the various types of sails are. If I were 40 years younger, I’d hire on a sailing ship like the Star of India and “learn the ropes.”

Speaking of the Star of India – this is the oldest still operating steel hull sailing ship in the world, and it is permanently parked in San Diego on the waterfront as a maritime museum.

 

Star of India

Picture Credit: Lothar Frosch

Some of the most fascinating parts about Two Years Before the Mast are Dana’s descriptions of California. In 1935, they visited many places in California that are there today, including San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. The missions in California had been there for centuries even then, and towns had grown around those missions, but those towns were just a few shacks or adobe buildings with hard dirt floors. San Francisco was two shacks down by the water a few miles in from the bay entrance. San Diego consisted of a little “harbor” where the Navy fuel yards are today. The ships docked there and the sailors came to the shore by boats. Since the California trade with the United States at the time was mostly hides, there were four hide houses there. Those were storage facilities for tens of thousands of hides, which the ships brought to San Diego from all over the California coast for curing, drying and treating before they were loaded on ships to be taken to the east coast. Then, a few miles inland from the harbor, where we now have “Old Town,” were a few homes, some merchant buildings, and that was San Diego. The Presidio was up the hill from there. Dana’s descriptions of the California locations I now know so well, having lived here for more than 30 years, are priceless historical references.

But that’s not a modern phenomenon. Dana’s book, published in 1840, was the unequivocal reference book for California used by the San Francisco 49ers (the visitors to the area due to the Gold Rush). Even then the book was a bestseller.

There was a cliff on the coast of what is Orange County today, where Dana and crew, when they collected hides, just threw them down like Frisbees rather than carrying them down the steep cliffs. They did this for a number of visits. He called this spot one of the most romantic spots in California. Well, there is a town called Dana Point on the California coast today, and it was named after the author. I had no idea! I even know a person named Dana, and I will not disclose his last name here, who once told me that his name was Dana because he was conceived at Dana Point on the beach. I wonder if he knows the book Two Years Before the Mast?

Eventually, Dana became a lawyer and was quite active defending sailors and working on making their lives less brutal.

Dana’s trip from Boston to San Diego, California, picking up a load of 40,000 hides, and then returning to Boston, took over two years. That was his two years before the mast. I have traveled from San Diego to Boston and back in 6-hour one-way airline trips many times. The whole journey would sometimes have me away from home no more than 48 hours.

What a fascinating world we live in!

And what an amazing book Two Years Before the Mast is!

 

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Here we are, cashing in one of our Activity wedding presents from our friend Sheryl, aided by a compatriot friend and prop man, John. It was a mystery gift. She had us reserve the afternoon of Sunday, October 15, 2017 over three months ago and we did not know what to expect.

The instructions for us were: Trisha to show up wearing a long dress, and I should wear all black.

When we arrived at the AMC 20-plex in Mission Valley, she said we were going to start the Adventure by watching a movie.

As we turned into the theater door I saw the marquee say The Princess Bride. I gave a blank look, and Trisha gave a blank look, and Sheryl broke out into a joyful exclamation: “You’re Princes Bride Virgins!”

And so we were. We had no idea what this was all about.

Beers in hand, we found our seats, only to sit down next to a guy in the dark who said those seats were taken. It was our friend John, the prop accomplice.

This was the 30th anniversary showing of the movie, complete with an interview with Rob Reiner before the movie and an epilogue afterwards.

Directed by Rob Reiner, The Princess Bride is an enchanting, romantic, modern fairy tale, as corny as it gets. It’s the story of a princes named Buttercup (Robin Wright) and her farm boy lover and gallant hero Westley (Cary Elwes), where the dominant theme is True Love, the villains are mean and treacherous, and the good guys very smart and courageous.

The cast, of course, is amazing. There is Robin Wright, who broke through to stardom as Buttercup, went on to play Jenny in Forrest Gump, and today is Claire Underwood in House of Cards. Of course, I knew none of this when I watched Buttercup. I just figured it out in my research for this review.

Then there is Inigo Montoya with the notorious line “you killed my father, prepare to die!” who was played by Mandy Patinkin, whom I know as Saul Berenson in Homeland. There is also Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, whom people still heckle today by asking him to say “inconceivable!”

To round things out, the movie is presented by a frame story, where a grandfather, played by Peter Falk, reads to his sick grandson in bed, played by Fred Savage of the Wonder Years.

Finally, every fairy tale must have a giant, and Andre the Giant serves quite well for that.

Rob Reiner created a cult classic with The Princess Bride.

Forty years ago I remember going to see the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few times, and I was always amazed how people would dress up to go to a movie, bring rice to throw in the theater during the wedding scene, and recite the lines as they occurred.

Yet here I was, dressed all in black, with a mask and a black bandana on my head sporting skull and crossbones, watching The Princess Bride. During the famous chocolate candy scene John doled out yummy chocolate balls. When the six-fingered scene came up, he held up his right hand and showed six fingers. The two ladies wore tiaras; after all, they were the princesses. When the rodents of unusual size attacked, John threw a large plastic rat at us. When we walked out of the theater we asked somebody to take our picture and she said: “As you wish…”

And that is how we spent Sunday afternoon.

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The name Al Gore is synonymous with Climate Change (capitalized on purpose). Gore started a popular uprising more than ten years ago with the movie An Inconvenient Truth and with this sequel he continues his fight.

He has been vilified by deniers and the far right lobby in the United States, and he has suffered setback after setback in his mission to get the message out.

Living in the United States in the age of Trump and the dumbing down of America, we tend to forget that we are pretty unique in the world. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, and the far right is a small, albeit powerful slice of that 5%, but they seem to be the loudest criers. Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord. This makes no sense. 95% percent of the people of the world are scratching their heads.

I know people all over the world, Europeans, South Africans, Japanese, Brazilians, Indians, to name just a few. And I could not name a single one of them who would be what we call in the United States a climate denier. Denying climate change seems to be a uniquely American malaise.

Al Gore has the work cut out for himself in this country, and I am grateful for his leadership and tenacity.

You don’t have to “believe” in climate change to watch An Inconvenient Sequel and learn from it. The movie is full of facts and astonishing imagery about how our world has been changing and is continuing to change.

The most important experience for me, however, was as I walked out of the movie, stunned, but inspired. We have got this. There is no stopping that movement. People have turned their backs on coal and oil, no matter what the coal and oil lobby, and our own government, that is supposed to protect us, tells us. People are installing solar energy systems at an ever escalating pace. Solar will be cheaper and easier to use. Coal and oil will be inconvenient, and the planet will heal.

This didn’t happen by accident. This happened because of the tireless leadership of thousands of people, one of which is Al Gore.

Oh, no, we’re not done yet with the fight, far from it. But oh, yes, we will choose to take the baton so we can march toward a better world.

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Stephen King is a master of what-if books.

For instance, his novel Under the Dome is based on this premise: What if a bubble-like, transparent, but completely impenetrable dome a few miles across suddenly was placed over a New England town? Nobody gets in, nobody gets out. What would happen? Then King builds an entire novel around this unlikely, impossible and ridiculous assumption.

In King’s novel The Stand, he speculates that a human-made deadly virus accidentally gets out and kills 99.9999 percent of the population. Only a handful individuals survive. That’s the what-if scenario. Then a novel of well over a thousand pages follows, building an entire world based on that premise.

Stephenson also likes to write what-if novels. Seveneves starts: THE MOON BLEW UP WITHOUT WARNING AND FOR NO APPARENT reason. What would happen if that actually occurred?

DODO is such a what-if book. What if magic existed? Yes, magic like witches that can cast spells, like turning a man into a frog, or changing the order of playing cards in a deck, Harry Potter kind of magic. It’s a preposterous assumption, and it was enough to turn me off before I even picked up the book. But then, a friend and frequent commenter on this blog (MB) told me to get over the magic part and read DODO anyway. So I did. I did not regret it.

Besides being a book that speculates about magic, DODO is also a time travel book. Time travel is one of my favorite science fiction genres, and it even has its own category in the selector on this blog. If you are ever interested in finding books about time travel, I have a wealth of them reviewed right here.

To expand: What if magic existed and what if witches could send people back and forward in time by casting spells? What would happen in a world of 2017, with iPhones, Google, the Internet, and black-budget arms of the United States government, like D.O.D.O, the Department of Diachronic Operations? Imagine the United States military, with its ridiculous bureaucracy, its totally confusing acronyms and endless procedures manuals getting mixed up in magic!

Tristan Lyons is a major in the United States military. Melisande Stokes is a post-doctoral linguistics expert and renowned polyglot, primarily of ancient languages, like Greek, Latin, Hebrew and many others. Lyons recruits Stokes to help him translate ancient texts that reference magic. Magic seems to have been prevalent in early human history, but has abruptly stopped in the mid 19th century. As the two research, they eventually find that a single event in July of 1851 finally stopped magic worldwide. With the help of a renowned physicist and research of the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, they build a machine inside which magic is possible in the 21st century. Now they just have to find a witch, and they can travel in time.

And travel they do, and problems they create.

DODO is a delightful book in so many aspects. For instance, one of the main protagonist organizations is the Fugger family, one of the wealthiest medieval European banking families. This was fun for me, because I had just read The Richest Man Who Ever Lived a couple of years ago, which chronicles the life of Jakob Fugger, a Bavarian banker from Augsburg who was, in his day, the richest and one of the most powerful men in the world. He told kings what to do, because he had the money to fund the kings. The Fugger family is central in the plot of DODO.

The most remarkable thing about DODO is the completely unconventional and, shall I call it experimental, structure of the book. If a lesser author had tried to pull this off, it would have been a dismal failure. But Stephenson made it work: The format and framework of the book is nothing like I have ever read before. It’s not narrated in the first person or the third person. It is a largely chronological assortment of diaries, emails, internal blog posts, government memos – sometimes heavily redacted, handwritten notes, narratives, translations, Wikipedia entries, and historic references. No one person tells the story. The author does not tell the story, and there is no major protagonist who tells the story. The various documents and excerpts, just posted one after the other, eventually tell the story.

It’s a brilliant, new format that I have never seen done before, and it won’t be applied again.

I would normally have given this book three stars, but the completely refreshing and innovative format, and the fact that Stephenson pulled it off successfully, made me bump this book to four stars. It’s a must-read, not because you like time travel (or magic), but because it’s something that has never been done before and therefore is unique.

Is there an award for unique?

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